Undercover work

3rd January 1997 at 00:00
Standards of literacy in schools are on the decline. We can moan and apportion blame as much as we like, but it will not solve the problems that surface when pupils transfer from primary to secondary school.

There is no simple answer. The primary school has a role to play but cannot take full responsibility for declining standards. In secondary schools it has long been known that children regress. We may well be at fault for either assuming too much or too little about our pupils. The important thing is to look carefully at the issue and at what can be done to redress the balance.

A new vocabulary enters the frame when children transfer to secondary school. In particular, science and technology often impart several new technical terms to children.

This can be a major problem when the pupils may not be secure in their everyday language. Add to this the differing role of some words in science as opposed to everyday language and you could have the recipe for disaster.

Take a simple word: mass. How many meanings does this word have? According to an English dictionary, at least 15: a large coherent body of matter; a collection of the component parts of something; a large amount or number; a majority; the size of a body; the amount of matter in a body; a deposit of ore; and so on. Yet in science, mass has a specific meaning related to matter, not to be confused with weight. How do we tackle children's understanding of the concept of mass to the exclusion of so many other meanings, in particular for the child whose level of literacy is low?

With this and other problems in mind, my school looked at our literacy policy and developed practices to help a significant number of pupils arriving with reading ages sometimes two or more years behind their chronological age.

One area we developed was the need to allow pupils the opportunity to practice and become more confident readers, not just of the textbooks that we issue, but of their own books from home. All pupils are encouraged to have a reading book with them. The book can be used with the consent of class teachers at various times. For example, when a pupil finishes the required work in my lesson, they can read their book or look through some books I keep in my lab that are not textbooks. Pupils can also read in some tutor times. There are also reading clubs for pupils who have difficulty in reading. Sixth-form students listen to them read and help them.

More practical assistance can also be given: decorating the walls of the labs with the names and simple drawings of science apparatus helps, as does encouraging pupils to read out loud as well as listening and following the teacher while they read a passage from a textbook. It is also important to explain new words found in science. Although Latin is not taught, explaining the roots of words makes the words easier to understand. Giving examples of other words with the same prefix and suffix can also help.

It is too early to say what effect this will have on our pupils, but if it is sustained, there should be a payoff in the long run.

Looking at the school policy from a science point of view, I tried to be positive and think of things that not only helped reading skills, but which also encouraged pupils to take an interest in science.

This task seemed to be easy. There must, I thought, be plenty of material out there for 11 to 14-year-olds that was interesting, stimulating and not just fact-filled entertainment.

But it was harder to find this material than I anticipated. On a visit to a well-known bookstore chain, I was met by a plethora of fact-filled picture books, beautiful books, well illustrated but, with little interesting text that would stimulate readers and enthuse pupils in the wonder of science.

True, these books tried hard to show how wonderful science was, but they were just a different type of textbook. Enquiries at the desk assured me of their popularity among parents as presents that should help children with their science homework from school.

I was then guided to the adult popular science section where I saw much more of what I wanted, unfortunately none of it suitable for 11 to 14-year-olds. Children like stories and mystery. My pupils enjoy The X-Files and some will ask about the science behind the sci-fi programme: could some of the story lines be true? Much is made of the theoretical possibilities of science, not just the present-day reality of science. After all, our pupils will live in the reality of some of these theoretical possibilities and should be thinking about them.

After much searching, I did find two examples of the sort of book that I was after. Luckily, they both formed series. The first, Science Mysteries by Lesley Newson, took an unconventional look at some of the aspects of science that do not have an answer as yet. Questions such as what is sleep and why do we dream? What is time? How did language come into being and the science behind growing older.

The author's reason for writing and publishing these books is to captivate the imagination of children, to present science not as a subject that has all the answers but one that is continually growing and developing with us as a race.

Today's science students are tomorrow's science practitioners. In our curriculum we fill our pupils with the fact of science without addressing the quest for answers that drives many scientists on. The books are written for the age group I was looking at, and gave them a stimulus to think about issues in science.

On a different note, but just as promising, is the second series, written by Russell Stannard. In the Uncle Albert books the big theories in science, such as time, space, black holes and quantum physics are explained through beautifully written stories about Uncle Albert's niece, Gedanken, who travels in the thoughts of her scientist uncle's mind through his thought bubbles.

As a way of getting science over to pupils as an interesting, thought-provoking and human activity, both of these series can help. My pupils in Year 7 have looked at them and their reactions are positive.

A simple, basic educational premise must be that when a pupil asks a question it means that they want to know the answer, they want to learn. Both sets of books provoke questions. Maybe as teachers we ask too many questions as a way of testing pupils' understanding. Perhaps we should allow them to ask more questions, even the tricky ones, and explore together what the possibilities might be.

There is a market out there that needs to be filled with well-written story books that pupils can read for pleasure. In the rush to fill the market with information books, publishers have forgotten that books can also be used for relaxation and pleasure, even in science.

Science Mysteries series by Lesley Newson, published by A amp; C Black, #163;8.99 each

Uncle Albert series by Russell Stannard, published by Faber and Faber

James Williams is head of the science faculty at The Beacon School, Banstead, Surrey

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